Russian space officials say that sea plankton as well as other, unspecified microorganisms were found on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) during a spacewalk. Scientists are perplexed as to their origin.
The first possible answer to the question of “how?” was the idea that the plankton and microorganisms were carried aloft when the ISS modules they were found on were lifted into space. However, plankton is not found anywhere near the launch site in Kazahkstan, so that possibility was quickly eliminated. The working hypothesis now is that air currents from Earth carried it aloft from the surface of a sea.
Despite the sophisticated and intense testing and monitoring which is constantly happening on the International Space Station, the discovery was actually made by accident. Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Olek Artemyev were outside the station on a routine spacewalk, busy launching nanosatellites into space. (“Nanosats” are artificial satellites with a wet mass weight of 2.2 pounds to 22 pounds.) A part of their extravehicular activity was routine polishing of windows (also known as “illuminators”) of the Russian portion of the ISS. The wipes they used on the windows picked up the plankton, which was later identified using an unspecified form of “high-precision equipment.” The results of the tests were apparently finalized late last year and the organisms have reportedly been living on the outside of the ISS for a number of years.
Incredibly, the Earth-originated microscopic organisms survived through the extreme conditions of cosmic radiation, freezing temperatures, diminished levels of oxygen and the vacuum of space. The Russian space modules on which the plankton were found lifted off from a space facility at Baikonur, Kazahkstan, a continental location nowhere near a plankton habitat. On the other hand, at an altitude of 260 miles, neither is the ISS.
Although being carried up into space by air currents from Earth’s seas is the current favorite guess, Vladimir Solovyev, the head of the Russian ISS mission, expressed his less-than-100 percent confidence in this theory. Itar-Tass, a Russian news agency, said Solovyev and researchers are not absolutely sure how the particles could have arrived on the surface of the ISS. He did confirm, however, that plankton in the stage of development in which they were noticed on the ISS are indeed found on ocean surfaces. He said, obliquely, that ” … there are some rising air currents, which settle on the surface of the station.”
A former cosmonaut, Solovyev spent almost a year orbiting Earth in the 1980s. He said that ISS’s outer surface is “heavily contaminated” from discharges from the space station during spacewalks and from the engines of arriving spacecraft. Solovyev said that the cleaning and polishing of the outside of the Russian portion of the ISS is part of a special operation. “This is especially important during long space flights,” he said.
Long-term research has shown that certain organisms are capable of staying alive on the outer surface of the International Space Station for years. Other studies have shown that such organisms not only can survive but even develop. The National Aeronautic & Space Administration of the United States has not yet commented on whether the discovery of sea plankton in space could have an effect on the American portion of the International Space Station or whether it has recorded similar findings.
By Gregory Baskin